2019 Audi Q8 first drive review: Luxury goes everywhere

The all-new 2019 Audi Q8 flagship SUV is not merely Ingolstadt's answer to the BMW X6, Mercedes-Benz GLE, and the Range Rover Sport. Audi's push further into the upper echelons of luxury transportation, it will also serve as the foundation of the automaker's new design language for its future Q-product line up. And, though "four-door coupe" may still sound like an oxymoron to some, an unexpectedly extended drive in the new Q8 proved to me that this is more than just a new badge.

I spent a fair amount of time with Audi Q8's lead exterior designer, Sascha Heyde, to get a better understanding of the Q8's design elements and how it differs from the Q7. As with all the automaker's design projects, Heyde beat out many other designers throughout the company, vying for the big task of successfully combining a coupe-like profile with the practical proportions of a family-oriented performance SUV. For a completely new nameplate, however, the stakes are even higher.

"With the Q8, we did something completely new for Audi," Heyde explained to me. "This is the first time I did an all new model. It was a big challenge to create an iconic look for the car."

A future icon

Everything takes its cue from the front. The bulging rear arches, sloping coupe-like roofline, and the lowered stance are all predefined by the new octagon grille element, with its six vertical chrome fins. "The first eye-catching element of the Audi Q8 is the new grille architecture," Heyde told me. "The octagon shape [of the grille] will be the next silhouette for the whole range of upcoming Audi Q models."

Audi Q8 design walkthrough with Sasche Heyde, Lead Exterior Designer

Love it or hate it, then, the octagon grille is here to stay. Personally, I think the new grille shape is really successful evolution of the Audi Bauhaus design philosophy. Not only does it make the fascia of the car more bold, it also opens the door to more customization in terms of color options for the exterior shape of the grille.

Many things could change by the time the Q8 makes it stateside, but as of right now I'm told that we'll most likely get the black finish on the exterior frame to match the black grille. All S-Line cars – including those with the black optics option – will get the gray insert, while the regular trim gets matching body paint color.

It's subjective, but I personally like the black optic option best, then the body matching color. The gray looks a little too plasticky to my eyes, draws too much attention to it, and overall looks a little cheaper than the other finishes. Flanking the grille are narrow LED headlights and hard-to-miss large and sporty air intakes. They give the 2019 Q8 an athleticism which contrasts nicely with some of the more stately lines.

Aggressive Stance

The Audi Q8 is probably most appreciated when viewed from the side. That's where all its strongest design elements can be seen in their full glory, after all. I'd say looking at it directly from the rear comes in a close second, thanks to the TRON-like daytime running lights.

Also evident from the rear is the wider stance of the 2019 Q8, an inch broader than the Q7 with which it shares a platform. The full-width lights only emphasize that, with the new LED light arrangement projecting a unique 3D shape that lends extra depth to the car.

The striking coupe-like roofline and the frameless doors are both sporty and elegant. The A-pillar starts 1.57-inches lower than in the Audi Q7, and it's 2.6-inches shorter overall; it also has a longer wheelbase, with shorter front and rear overhangs. In fact, the new Audi Q8 is 5.2-inches longer than the Range Rover Sport, but it sits almost 4-inches lower to the ground and is just shy of a half-inch wider overall.

Unlike other coupe-inspired crossovers with their aggressively lowered rooflines, though, the Q8 is still able to offer sufficient headroom in the rear seats, even for tall adults. "The roofline is supposed to be a coupe," Heyde explained to me, "but it's different to the shape of a normal expected coupe, so the outline is different to maintain lots of head room inside."

I'm 6'2", so my standard test is to sit comfortably in the front seat and then move to the rear and see if I still have plenty of leg room there. It's a test the Q8 aces. Indeed, there's so much room in the back row, the best analogy is the emergency exit row on an airplane. You can even cross your legs comfortably, if you so wished.

The rear seat back rest reclines, and the seats can scoot forward for additional luggage space in the back. While the Q8 may be shorter than the Q7, it's still longer than the BMW X6 and the Mercedes-Benz GLE. Interior space is more than adequate for five full-sized occupants. Though it's a strict five-seater, without the Q7's third row seating, that does mean the Q8 offers 21.4 cubic feet of cargo space with the seats up and a healthy 62 cu-ft with them down.

Similarly outsized are the massive 22-inch wheels, new for the 2019 Audi Q8 and indeed the biggest to be ever fitted to an Audi production car. They're framed in equally-massive wheel arches, which further enhance the hunkered-down look of the SUV. Our test cars were outfitted with 21-inch wheels, which performed well through rough roads, dirt, water and almost anything was thrown at the Q8 during our drive in Atacama, Chile.

Agile Performance

Despite the five-seat configuration, the 2019 Audi Q8 is over an inch wider than the seven-seat Q7. It grants the Q8 an advantage in terms of handling, agility, and steering response. Audi used aluminum extensively in the standard five-link suspension in the front and rear of the vehicle, in an attempt to further reduce the weight of the SUV.

Standard equipment on the Audi Q8 is a mechanical center differential that transfers 40-percent of the engine power to the front and 60-percent to the rear wheels. The Audi Q8 also offers selectable driving modes, so the driver can adjust the steering, suspension, and powertrain settings depending on the given terrain. Yes, the Audi Q8 will also be given an off-road mode for those who want to drive their premium SUV in the wilderness.

Frankly, I doubt most Q8 owners will challenge the car's trekking talents, though the vehicle's systems do at least make it easier. During our relatively mild off-road test, I was able to check out the angle/pitch display to show the steepness of the road. It's a neat feature for monitoring just how far you're pushing things.

Elegant Interior

It came as no surprise the Audi Q8 was lavished with an interior like that of the new Audi A8 luxury sedan. The dashboard wraps around, from door panel to door panel, with the upper layer intended to be what Sascha Heyde describes as "the digital core" of the cabin. It's dominated by a 10.1-inch touchscreen, which is dedicated to the infotainment and navigation system. An 8.1-inch touchscreen mounted underneath is used to control the HVAC system and other comfort settings.

The split dual-display is going to take some getting used to versus Audi's old layout, but after experiencing it in the A8, A7 Sportback, A6, and now the Q8, the new configuration is warming on me. I particularly like the haptic feedback when you tap the touchscreen, which is accompanied by low sound through the system's speakers. If you need a bigger buzz, there's an option for that too. If I've a complaint, I did find that I needed to hold my finger against the display a fraction longer than most touch panels, in order for the selection to register.

My favorite feature, meanwhile? That has to be the shortcuts on the lower touchscreen. You can configure them for directions to your favorite location – home, perhaps, or work – or to your favorite song. Pressing and holding a shortcut allows you to move it around, just like you would with an app icon on the iPhone.

While you're driving, the broad, flat gear shifter is placed in just the right position for your wrist, as you reach out and tap at the lower display. It's a little more awkward as a passenger, mind, since you lack the wrist-rest. You might miss that when you're using the Q8's support for scribbling text on the lower touchscreen, as an alternative to the regular on-screen keyboard option. It took my drive partner and I a short while to get the hang of it but, after a few attempts, text input was easy. It does require a couple of quick glances up and down to make sure you're scribbling in the right place – and having your scribbles successfully translated by the system – though it became second nature over the course of our drive.

Audi Q8 dual-display infotainment system

The 2019 Audi Q8 comes with Audi's 12.3-inch Virtual Cockpit instead of traditional driver instrumentation, along with a head-up display with detailed lane guidance and integrated navigation. It remains one of my favorite features, ever since Audi first offered it on the current-gem. TT some years ago. It's particularly useful when you load up Google Earth, especially when you're driving in a new town or navigating a busy parking lot looking for a specific store.

A luxury car is rightly judged by the standard of its trim and touch-points, and the Q8 doesn't fall short. Indeed, the interior finish is an abundance of premium materials, including leather, wood, and chrome accents. "The analog elements are called the mechanical wrap, and surround the digital core of the dashboard," Audi designer Heyde told me. "This is the area to activate analog elements like the door handles and the air vents." Buyers will be able to choose from different types of leather hide and seat designs, among plenty more from a healthily comprehensive options list.

One I'd be mighty tempted to check would be the 23-speaker Bang & Olufsen sound system, which offers 3D surround sound. I'd feared I might need to turn it up to counter road and wind noise from the frameless windows, but my concerns were unfounded. Regardless of the speed or road conditions, even on unkempt tracks with miles of desert all around us, very little noise came through.

According to Audi, that's courtesy of a special material around the edges of the frame that allows for a tighter fit with the glass. The b-pillar carves a wedge for the front and rear windows to perfectly slide over. It's unclear at this stage whether the double-pane glass will make it to US cars, though Audi insists that even without it the Q8's cabin will stay impressively quiet.

Engine Technology

Initially, there'll only be a single powertrain option in the US: Audi's V6 3.0-liter TFSI engine producing 335 hp, and paired with an 8-speed automatic transmission. You won't be surprised to heat that Quattro all-wheel drive is standard, too.

Like the new A8, the 2019 Q8 is a mild-hybrid system (MHEV). That integrates a lithium-ion battery and a belt alternator-starter (BAS) with a 48 volt electrical system. There's no all-electric range; instead, Audi uses the electrical addition for economical cruising with the gas engine shut off, as well as to help with the 0-60 mph time of 6.3 seconds. Top speed is 144 mph, and neither figure is particularly disappointing given 2.1-ton (roughly 1,900 kg) curb weight. That's actually a little heavier than the Q7, even with that SUV's extra seats.

Any performance qualms I might have had over the absence of a V8 were settled after spending an extended time in the Q8. We drove, and drove, and drove for over six hours, up and down the highest peak in Atacama which rises to over 15,000 feet. The only time I felt the Q8 losing steam was in the upper 12,000+ elevations. No real fault of its own, either: the diminishing oxygen levels take their toll on the horsepower. Audi encouraged us to switch over to Sports mode to offset the drop in power, giving the SUV a little more eagerness.

Impressively satisfying, then, but I'd be remiss if I failed to mention the much-anticipated 2019 Audi Q8 RS. That's rumored to be fitted with a hybrid V8 powertrain, with 670 horsepower and 627 lb-ft of torque: the same powerhouse, in fact, that Porsche blesses the current Panamera Turbo S E-Hybrid with. Should that chatter turn out to be true, it'll make the Q8 RS the most powerful production Audi vehicle to ever come out of Ingolstadt. We're talking even more horsepower than the Audi R8 V10 Plus supercar, albeit with more weight to move around. Still, that's all rumor for now.

Audi Q8 technology

Chassis and Suspension

Audi is keen to tell you that the 2019 Q8 was bred to have the same, revered athleticism of the original Audi Quattro. Of course, the new four-door coupe is a whole lot more modern, too. Its body and chassis are based on the Audi Space Frame platform, built using a combination of aluminum and steel for greater stiffness and rigidity. Aluminum features in the side and floor panels, suspension strut towers, engine parts, and the connecting parts between the door sills and longitudinal members. Even the roof is constructed from the lighter metal, so as to help keep the center of gravity low, and not upset the longitudinal balance of the car.

The five-link front and rear adaptive air suspension is standard, and can switch between different degrees of damping depending on whether you're prioritizing comfort, sporty handling, or off-road abilities. The Audi Drive Dynamic Handling System offers four different modes. On the top-tier trim, with the meaty 22-inch wheels, you can spec optional all-wheel steering too. At slower speeds, the rear wheels turn by approximately 5-degrees in the opposite direction to those at the front, significantly reducing the turning circle. At higher speeds, meanwhile, the rear wheels turn in the same direction as the front axle, by up to 3.5-degrees, to boost stability.

Audi Q8 Trailer Assist

The Q8 also inherits the SQ7's variable steering ratio for a sportier driving experience, while making things in the cabin more comfortable for passengers. Working in conjunction with all wheel steering, progressive steering allows for more precise steering with less effort at slower speeds. At higher speeds, however, it gets firmer, tighter, and generally feels more direct.

Safety and Driver Assistance

The 2019 Audi Q8 comes with a comprehensive array of safety and driver assistance packages, indeed a total of 39 driver assistance systems. Standard on the Q8 is the Central Driver Assistance Controller that utilizes radar sensors, ultrasound sensors, and laser scanners to build a digital model of the driving environment. That then combines with the Audi Pre-Sense Crossing Assist System to detect traffic in front of the SUV, warning the driver about vehicles approaching from either side. It can be a fender-saver in tight or blind intersections.

We're seeing more and more sensors that you might associate with prototype autonomous cars arrive on production vehicles, and the 2019 Q8 bears more than most. There's a laser scanner and long-range radar mounted in the front grille, for instance, the presence of which demanded the wider openings. Though it looks a little odd at first glance, Audi's designers had to keep the gap uniform with the size and shape of two new sensors. There's also a camera in the front, four 360-degree environmental cameras for the surround view around the car, and two mid-range radar.

European drivers will see those sensors put to good use in the Audi Tour Assist Package, an adaptive cruise and assistance system that can detect lane markings, vehicles in adjacent lanes, roadside structures, and vehicles ahead to support the driver in accelerating, braking, and keeping the proper distance. The Q8 can even adjust its speed according to the limit and prevailing conditions on the road. Sadly it won't be present on the Q8 sold in the US.

The Verdict

When Audi unveiled the current-gen Q7 at the start of 2015, I was less than enthusiastic about the redesign. It had become, I thought, a little too domesticated and not sporty enough for my taste. What we didn't know at the time was that Audi was playing the long game: make a tamer, practical family SUV then, while preparing a sportier model for later on.

If you felt the same way as I did about the Q7, you may well agree with me that the 2019 Q8 addresses all of those qualms. It looks great, performs exceptionally well on the road and, should you ever find yourself off the beaten path – whether in the plains of Atacama or somewhere mud-churned closer to home – you'll be just fine. There's plenty of room to haul a couple of kids to school, or to put the Q8 into chauffeur duty for that matter, but when you're on your own there's no reason not to push on and flex that horsepower and excellent chassis.

Never mind worrying the BMW X6, Mercedes GLE Coupe, and the Range Rover Sport: the 2019 Audi Q8's high-end VW Group stablemates like Porsche's Cayenne, Bentley's Bentayga, and Lamborghini's Urus may well have to raise their game. Expect it on US dealership forecourts in late 2018, with pricing to be announced closer to that point.